Survey Reveals Major Delays in Special Education Services for Military Children

Survey Reveals Major Delays in Special Education Services for Military Children
Photo by L.A. Shively/Joint Base San Antonio

Imagine this scenario: Your daughter is falling behind in second grade, and her teachers have indicated concerns about her ability to keep up. In late November, the school recommends testing for a learning disability. After numerous tests, she’s diagnosed in mid-February with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.


Armed with your own research, you advocate for your daughter and go through the eligibility process of getting her an Individualized Education Program (IEP), or a 504. After 15 school days to set up the initial meeting and another 45 days for the evaluation process, plus holidays and breaks, we’re nearing the end of the school year. No problem: The IEP will be in place and ready for third grade, right?  


Forgot one thing: You are a military family, and your servicemember just got PCS orders moving you from Virginia to California this summer.


There are over 1.3 million military-connected school-age children and, with PCS moves occurring an average of every two to three years, approximately 500,000 children change schools every year. It’s one of many reasons MOAA engages with government agencies and other nonprofit organizations to ensure military-connected children have the same access to education as their civilian counterparts.


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Transferring duty stations is challenging enough for military families, but when children transfer to a new school system, the changes can be overwhelming – a new environment with new teachers and friends, new routines, new activities, and more. For military-connected children with special education needs, the challenges of transitioning to a new environment grow exponentially. According to the Military Child Education Coalition, an estimated 10% to 12% of military-connected students are served in special education programs, a few percentage points below the national average of 14.4%.


So, with all these challenges, how long will it take families like the one in our example to get the educational support they need? According to a recent survey, nearly two full years.


About the Survey

Partners in PROMISE, an organization founded to protect the rights of military children in special education, along with researchers from The Ohio State University, recently published the findings from the 2021 Military Special Education Survey. This 32-page report highlights three key barriers to accessing a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) experience by military special education families:

  • Real barriers: Significant delays in special education timelines.
  • Perceived barriers: Families do not believe they have the ability to access recourse when a special education violation has occurred.
  • Unknown barriers: Families who are unfamiliar with Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) services and/or special education concepts are less likely to cite positive special education experiences.


(Michelle Norman, founder and executive director of Partners In PROMISE, is a member of MOAA’s Currently Serving Spouse Advisory Council and was recently featured as one of MOAA’s Changemakers.)


On average, survey respondents reported waiting 23 months from the initial identification of an issue before receiving special education services. The survey shows the delay of services for military-connected students with existing IEPs averages 5.75 months following a PCS move. The delays leave these students without the vital resources they are entitled to and can impact overall success in a school environment. 


While parents of children requiring special education programs have the right to register an unofficial complaint with the local school and raise the issue to higher levels if not resolved, only 20% of respondents report filing any level of complaint. Many believe filing a claim is time consuming and will not result in the assistance they are seeking. Timeline delays have become the norm but simply accepting these delays does not address the problem.


An Unclear System

Parents of military-connected special education students know the needs of their children, but the survey shows they are largely unaware of how the special education or EFMP systems can help them address those needs. A lack of resource knowledge is leaving these students without the programs they need or resulting in military families paying out of pocket for supplementary services.


“That which is tolerated, if left unexamined, can begin to dominate,” said one respondent.


Military children in special education are suffering from the normalization of service delays and perceived inabilities on the part of the parents to enforce the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Partners in PROMISE recommends the following strategies for improving special education services for military-connected students:

  • Reduce barriers to advanced enrollment to mitigate delays in receiving essential services.
  • Educate military special education parents on their rights, the procedures for rectifying violations, and effective support systems.
  • Continue to standardize EFMP processes and resources across service branches.
  • Improve stakeholder participation in EFMP decision-making.


The National Military Family Association offers parents of eligible military-connected children with disabilities access to a free, special education curriculum to empower them to be their child’s best advocate. The course is produced by The Arc, a national, community-based organization advocating for people with disabilities.  


MOAA continues to work with organizations like Partners in PROMISE to recommend legislative and programmatic solutions to improving special education programs for military families. Connect with us on Facebook or email to join the conversation and share your stories. 


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About the Author

Jen Goodale
Jen Goodale

Goodale is MOAA's Director of Government Relations for Military Family Policy and Spouse Programs.